Clerk paints dim picture of county’s finances

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By Alice Du Pont

"I would describe the financial status of the county as fragile. You have to be careful or it will break," said Gadsden County Clerk of Courts Nicholas Thomas during a special called meeting last week.

Thomas and all constitutional officers were invited to the meeting to address Gadsden County commissioners on what they see as the immediate financial future of the county. He presented a detailed financial update, he said, in response to questions posed to him by individual commissioners.

"Our county is not immune to what's going on all over the state. Our county is facing declining revenues and long-term obligations. At the end of 2007, we had $3.8 million in reserves. That dropped as of Sept. 30 to $2.7 million," he said.

The problem, Thomas said, was a decline in revenues and an increase in spending. He said the state of Florida last week sent a memo informing county officials that there would be a loss to Gadsden County in revenue sharing funds of $586,000.

The county's long-term debt obligation is $18 million, Thomas said.

He also asked commissioners to clarify the use of the surtax. He said the tax was enacted to build a jail and when it was paid for the ordinance was never amended so that the funds can be used for another purpose. He said the tax is the county’s only source of flexible income.

He also suggested that the commission consider "fixing" their finance department because there are numerous internal funds that cloud the true financial picture.

"I recommend that you consider scrapping that and my finance department will work with your budget people to fix it. For example, the legal department is budgeted at far less than they've spent over the past three years," he said. The department was budgeted at $180,000 per year, but expenditures have reached $1.5 million in three years.

Thomas informed commissioners that in 2006, the interest from the hospital trust fund was $2.3 million. The fund has dwindled to $28,000 in the past two years.

Thomas also said he doesn't believe the county needs internal services financial system where each department pays for its own services. The system, he said, works in large cities.

"There are potential problems there that you don't want to visit. I don't believe anyone knew what Mr. Suggs (former budget director) was trying to do other than Mr. Suggs," Thomas said.

Commission Chairman Eugene Lamb asked Thomas to continue to attend meetings so that "things can run smoothly."

Property Appraiser Clay VanLandingham also told commissioners that the county is going to be in for tighter-than-normal economic times because property prices are falling in some areas of the county while rising or staying the same in other areas.

Gadsden County, he said, is looking at a $1.2 million loss in ad valorem taxes due to Amendment 1. By passing the amendment, voters approved the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $50,000 annually.

Added to that, the county is faced a 7 percent decline in building starts in 2008-9. VanLandingham said he expects a significant drop in 2009-10.

Dale Summerford, tax collector, said many citizens have paid their taxes in order to avoid the 4 percent penalty. As of Dec. 4, his office had collected a little more than $14.6 million of a total tax bill of $25.4 million. He said that 64 percent of the total tax bill had been collected.

"We're in good shape now, but it could all change by spring. Last year we had 19 percent in delinquent taxes where tax certificates were issued," Summerford said.

Because of the current recession, those tax certificates may not bring in the money they have brought in the past. Investment houses that once bought up millions in tax certificates have either gone out of business, are merging or have uncertain financial futures, according to Summerford.